The immigrant experience offers new windows to peer into the living conditions of the most hegemonic empire to ever exist. Sociology majors should recognize this as the concept of the “outsider-within.” I am, however, very hesitant to call myself an outsider in any sense of the word, especially when those who live outside of the so-called West, with a capital “W,” outnumber those within. I am no outsider in the same way that this Western world, the one understood through languages of wealth and power, is not the only one that makes sense.
Belief in capital and its internal logic is not the only way to make sense of existence “within” the West. What I mean is that perspectives from outside, or at least from places that feel a looser grasp of liberal capitalism, are vital in understanding how people live out and understand their relationships—with one another and within the social and natural environments around them—in different yet equally effective ways.
An example: reading wealth into existence is only one way to understand the significance of skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan. Peering out of a bus as it crosses the Hudson and into the island city, one can see how these buildings were built by private funding, accumulated wealth and public policy. Construction sprouted out of individual accumulations of wealth and a capitalist determination to conjure up space out of thin air, allowing concrete and steel beams to reach for the heavens.
Another reading, or a different understanding and articulation of what happens on the other side of this window, could be a reading of the shadows that these skyscrapers cast on the ghettos below. Behind the spectacle of the city grid are the brick basements and slouched men cooking for New York’s elite. I am talking about women who go room to room, floor to floor, cleaning the apartments of finance bankers. I am talking about alienated sanitary workers whose labor helps provide for their children studying uptown in City College, not knowing that their child remains alienated by their peers and professors, the children of capital who believe they built the city out of thin air.
My emphasis is not on the material allocation of wealth or on the capitalistic and bureaucratic arteries that deliver resources throughout the corporal construction of the city. What I want to explore through an academic lens is, instead, what these buildings mean for those on the periphery of perception.
Reading through a different lens is not about sharing the stories of the people below—there are many articles and ethnographies with much more detailed and accurate depictions of what life in the shadows is like. I’d rather use this column to write on what it means to slide between social spaces while retaining the logic that I still feel whenever I catch myself staring at the New York skyline on my way back from Bowdoin.
I find it beautiful to study the different lenses that animate everyday life and to see the different webs that make up peoples’ cosmologies of sensibilities.
I want to end with a call, or better yet a shout, for a world where discourses of all different dialects, signs and sacred totems of divine importance are equally as legible. One in which the public at the center of wealth and privilege in America reacts to cries of religious grief with the same visceral reaction as they do to the world of secular politics.
If writing is a practice of articulation, as understood by post-Marxist scholars like Chantal Mouffe, then my writing directs my articulation toward decoding the meanings hidden in the immigrant experience. Articulation, in my opinion, should not be about just stories, about me narrating the plights of my parents as precarious workers or my own stories as someone always on the outside of generational wealth and privilege.
I hope to conjure up a language out of thin air, with the same supernatural beauty that Marx attributed to capitalism in his manifesto, that makes sense outside of the binary of capital.
My goal is not to describe the story behind a picture of an indigenous woman carrying a rifle through the mystic jungles of Zapatista-controlled Chiapas. Instead, I hope to translate her beauty and what it means to us and use different linguistic currents that give justice to the dynamic significations of seemingly indescribable objects. This is meant to capture what it would mean to live in a world beyond alienation, one based on dignity and communal power. Maybe a world like this may be read by imagining Zapatista women marching through the financial district and by allowing oneself to revel in the bodily joy that those of the Global South feel in this display of autonomy and liberation.